20 October 2011

n.d.p. in piemonte: roberto conterno, monforte d'alba

Should you plan a trip to the Barolo region, everyone you know will tell you to do everything in your power to visit Roberto Conterno, winemaker at Giacomo Conterno, the legendary Monforte estate that is to Barolo sort of what Homer is to western literature. Then they will politely wish you luck getting an appointment.

Should you actually succeed in getting an appointment with Roberto Conterno, as my friends and I did this past August thanks to the kingly kindness of O.G. Canavese winemaker Luigi Ferrando, those same folks who wished you luck will unanimously ask you to tell Roberto they say hi.

What can you do. I think this phenomenon says less about people than it does about how people feel about Conterno and his wines. Even for the most jaded professionals who skip tastings, forget samples, and rarely finish bottles, the Giacomo Conterno operation, under Roberto's stewardship as under the last two generations', inspires nothing short of awe.

The winery is located just down the road from the restaurant / hotel Da Felicin, from which establishment we had rented the apartment where we stayed, a short hike uphill. Approached from this direction the place doesn't have a lot of grandeur; there is just the little sign saying Conterno, which name is the "Smith" of Monforte d'Alba.* The place could be light aircraft hangar, or the site of widget manufacture.

Our tasting got off to a slow start, as our arrival had coincided with some form of crucial computer technician phone call that required the full attention of Roberto and at times that of his administrative assistant Francesca as well. We spent a decent stretch of time cooling off from the walk over in the empty tasting room, eyeballing decorative empty bottles dating back to the early 20th century.

When Roberto did at last join us to start the tour he seemed to be in that state of anxiety familiar to anyone who has endured tech-help. So in the end I was pretty happy to pass along a hello from my old boss, which exchange also provided me opportunity to let Roberto know that we had met before, albeit briefly and unremarkably, at my old workplace in LA. (We'd hosted a tasting with one of his US importers, Rare Wine Co.) Given that we'd gotten the appointment on the spur-of-the-moment recommendation from Ferrando, I'd felt somewhat obliged to offer assurances that we weren't any old randoms.

I'm not sure assurances were necessary, in the end. Roberto Conterno is one of those diamond-rare winemakers who seem constitutionally incapable of speaking in sound-bites and sales summaries. I suspect that even had we been Amish elders or AA-members with zero interest in his wines he would still have spoken intelligently and carefully about their production and personalities - simply because he values time spent thinking about them. (Not to belabor this, but it's refreshing, bordering on revelatory, to speak with winemakers like Roberto, who will freely identify negative climate conditions in recent vintages, rather than just cannily insisting that every new harvest is the best ever. He speaks like a massively accomplished wine geek.**)

We descended to the temperature-controlled cellars, at which point I became grateful for the wait, as any perspiration left on me from the walk over would have assuredly give me pneumonia at the cooler temperatures down below. Monfortino - the estate's benchmark selection Barolo, from their Cascina Francia vineyard in Serrralunga - is famously fermented without temperature control, but having now visited the cellar I'd be willing to wager it's the only instance of chance in the entire vinification process. The Giacomo Conterno cellar is without a doubt the most immaculate place I've ever been, from the floors one could just as soon perform surgery on as eat off, to the way Roberto carries a supply of napkins to painstakingly eradicate every trace of moisture on the barrel tap after siphoning off some wine to taste.*** (C actually pointed this out in the moment. He has a sense of humor about it.)

We first tasted Barbera from the estate's Cerretta vines, which were purchased in 2008, marking only the second time the estate has acquired vineyard land. (The first being Cascina Francia, source of their fame and fortune.) Conterno's Cerretta holdings total 3ha, of which one is Nebbiolo, now bottled as Nebbiolo d'Alba but eventually destined to be released as a separate Barolo cru, and two are Barbera. Robert informed us that Cerretta is at approximately the same altitude and exposure as Cascina Francia. What separates the two vineyards is their soil; where Cascina Francia is limestone-based, Cerretta is clay.

The Cerretta Barbera vines are 17-18 years old, with an overall yield of 35HL. The 2009 we tasted from barrel was densely pungent, with a shining, high-energy black fruit; the whole thing was surprisingly primary and grapey, considering it had already spent almost two years in barrel. (The Giacomo Conterno Barberas spend two years in barrel, the Barolos four years, and the Monfortino Barolos at least seven, sometimes more.)

In comparison, the 2010 Cascina Francia Barbera, from 37 year old vines, was notably more tannic, mineral, and savoury, despite its youth in barrel. I preferred it. Roberto didn't disagree, but he was quick to point out that on the whole he prefers 2009 to 2010 for Barbera, noting that the structure and concentration of 2010 was perhaps less suited to the grape's character.

It was here, in discussing the Barberas, that I found the opportunity to asked whether, as I suspected after just two days' drinking in Piemonte, 2007 had been an overripe vintage. He said it had been very dry, and particularly warm in the winter, with no snow. While it hadn't been like 2003, a miserably hot year, he nevertheless attested that no Monfortino had been produced in 2007, which certainly says something about Nebbiolo that year.

Next we tasted 2008 Cascina Francia Barolo: lovely, fundamentally whole already, with fully realized side-palate acid supporting clear notes of smoke, chocolate, and white pepper. With such pleasures to be had in the estates "base" bottling Barolo, I was curious how the selection process for Monfortino was run. It turns out, in characteristically rigorous, vigilant, self-questioning fashion: the first selection is made in the vineyard, three days before harvest, and it is followed by continued tasting throughout the wines' evolution, until the last decision about what is Monfortino-standard is made after up to three years in barrel.

The last wine we tasted together was the 2005 Monfortino, which is to be bottled next year. Roberto called it a great vintage, but an unlucky one, in that it had the misfortune to be sandwiched between 2004 and 2006, two showier, more famous vintages. In comparison to the 2008 Cascina Francia, this wine was vastly more tannic, with more layered aromas, evoking unlit cigars and fruit leather. On the palate an black licorice accord was accompanied by a bold antique-shoppy flavor. But wines like this - monument wines, like Soldera's Brunello, or Vega Sicilia's "Unico" - are hard to convey in tasting notes.

It's best to visit, and chat a bit with the endlessly thoughtful winemaker himself. If you do - what else? - tell Roberto I say hi.

* Of the many other Conternos in town, only Aldo Conterno, Roberto's uncle, is related. Aldo Conterno is, of course, a tremendously esteemed winemaker in his own right, whose vineyards were part of the Giacomo Conterno estate until 1969, when that estate was divided between Aldo and his brother Giovanni - Roberto's father - so that the former could pursue what were then experimental methods in Barolo production, i.e. new oak barrique and so on, which practices yield in Aldo's hands very praise-worthy wines, but not ones I'd necessarily cross the world to taste from barrel.

** It was this quality of Roberto's that encouraged me, as we were wrapping up the tasting, to ask what he considered was Piemonte's greatest white wine. You should've seen the grin on his face. "In Piemonte," he said diplomatically, "we make excellent red wines." 

*** J and I would later have a nice laugh comparing this experience to last January's marathon tasting in the labyrinthine cellars at Clos Rougeard, where coins are affixed to mold formations on the walls and one is encouraged to dump one's glass behind the barrels. There's certainly no fixed protocol for making great wines.

Azienda Agricola Giacomo Conterno
12065 Monforte d'Alba
Tel: +39 017378221

Related Links:

N.D.P. in Piemonte: La Cantinetta, Barolo
N.D.P. in Piemonte: Francesco Rinaldi e Figli, Barolo
N.D.P. in Piemonte: Capella di Sol Lewitt, La Morra
N.D.P. in Piemonte: Osteria La Salita, Monforte d'Alba
N.D.P. in Piemonte: Solativo Vinosteria, Ivrea
N.D.P. in Piemonte: Luigi Ferrando, Ivrea

N.D.P. en Suisse: Chateau de Villa, Sierre

A trip to Rome, April 2011:
N.D.P. in Roma: Obikà
N.D.P. in Roma: Da Enzo
N.D.P. in Roma: Freni e Frizioni
N.D.P. in Roma: Roscioli Restaurant
N.D.P. in Roma: Roscioli Bakery
N.D.P. in Roma: The Jerry Thomas Project
N.D.P. in Roma: Maccheroni

A profile of the Giacomo Conterno estate @ PolanerSelections
A profile of the Giacomo Conterno estate @ RareWineCo.
An account of a 2011 dinner with Roberto Conterno @ Corney&Barrow
2010 coverage of a Giacomo Conterno tasting in NYC @ NYTimes

1 comment:

  1. Je ne sais pas comment, mais j'ai eu un rdv très facilement avec lui, et je dois dire, surtout, attention, demandez pas ce qu'il pense du vin naturel ou comment il traite ses vignes, comparez jamais avec la France il n'a rien à foutre, mais je dois dire que j'aime beaucoup son attititude I piss you off, as I am pissing of him ;-)....Ses vins sont top, et je n'aime pas trop le rouge pourtant ( et lui, il aime pas le blanc...). C'était une expérience, et il me doit encore la visite des vignes....